Hassan Hajjaj, VOGUE, The Arab Issue @Fotografiska

JTF (just the facts): A total of 104 black-and-white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against painted and wallpapered walls in a series of rooms on the 3rd floor of the museum. The exhibition was first shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2019 (here).

The following works are included in the show. Process information, dimensions, and even dates in some cases were not provided on the wall labels. (Installation shots below.)

  • 20 color photographs, made between 1999 and 2003
  • 42 black and white photographs, n.d.
  • 16 color photographs, in custom frames with tins/cans, made between 2000 and 2014
  • 9 color photographs, in custom frames with painted rubber, made between 2012 and 2016
  • 6 color photographs, in custom frames with mirror, made in 2012
  • 11 color photographs with overpainting, in custom frames with rubber, made between 2000 and 2014
  • 1 video installation, made in 2011

A catalog of the artist’s work was published by RVB Books (here) on the occasion of the exhibit.

Comments/Context: In recent years, Hassan Hajjaj’s exuberant color portraits surrounded by Pop Art-style tea tins and soda cans have dropped into the photography world like a breath of fresh air. But no artist arrives at a mature style overnight, and this two-decade retrospective exhibit provides some of the aesthetic clues and backstories to how Hajjaj’s photographs came to look like they do.

Like many innovators and entrepreneurs, Hajjaj’s story begins with noticing an absence, and then taking steps to capitalize on that overlooked opportunity. Born in Morocco and raised in the UK, Hajjaj observed that the Morocco he saw as the exotic setting for Western fashion shoots wasn’t really representative of the complex youthful energy that he knew thrummed through his homeland. So he set out to document that alternative vibrancy, hoping to make pictures of Moroccans that recognized how traditional clothes, fabrics, and textures and trendy Western fashions and brands could come together in unexpectedly cool ways.

Hajjaj’s early color works find him starting to explore how the energy of everyday life in Morocco might be translated into a contemporary photographic vision. Mainly his eye settles in on pops of color in the streets, including traditional robes, headgear, and leather shoes in primary colors, on both men and women. But he also starts to play with patterns and architectural forms, using eye catching Arabic lettering on commercial signs as a backdrop for some of his portraits and leveraging the motifs of traditional Moroccan buildings (a cafe setting, a tiled archway, stucco mounds and walls) in his setups. And while the poses in these early images are largely casual, Hajjaj often shoots his subjects from a low angle vantage point, creating a looking up from underneath vision that adds energy to a simple standing portrait. In these first photographs, we can see Hajjaj pulling style out of the action in the streets and experimenting with ways to amplify it.

Hajjaj’s black and white photographs feel like a step forward from his initial color works, in that he becomes more comfortable with staging, styling, and controlling the scene for his portraits. Studio-style posed portraits of families and groups are set up outside, using the available architecture and textiles strung up as backdrops, but the typical formality of such images soon breaks down into more comfortable lounging arrangements. Hajjaj also starts to experiment with more active layering of patterns, nesting tilework, woven mats, and printed robes into busier compositions, and introduces a handful of identity-driven props, like motorbikes, soccer balls, and flags, drawing on the lineage of African studio portraiture. Up-close, Hajjaj makes stylish headshots of young women, where robe hoods and veils cover faces in traditional ways, but polka dots, stripes, silks, and branded logos (Nike, Versace, Gucci, et al.) offer more opportunities for fashionable signaling and confident swagger.

From this point forward, Hajjaj begins to use the frames of his photographs as an additional venue for artistic expression, the resulting artworks becoming more sculptural. In one series, he turns the crank on his black-and-white headshots, changing to color imagery, which he then further overpaints with solid colors, removing any surrounding context from his faces. The works oscillate between old and new, with allusions to traditional painted family portraits and to more modern fashion-forward realities with bold patterns, animal prints, and brash logos on both headscarves and veils. These prints are then framed in the bumpy black rubber of old motorbike tires, adding both another layer of patterning (like a version of a carved wooden frame) and a reference to the kinds of interests modern Moroccan women now have. In a second series, color headshots of unveiled women show their full faces, again surrounded by patterned fabrics and backdrops. These photographs are then framed in reflective mirror and decorative tin, some salvaged from local metal packaging, adding a sense of shiny embellishment around already self-assured faces.

In Hajjaj’s more recent works, he essentially turns up the volume on all of his available aesthetic variables, leveraging the artistic learnings from his previous projects. In one group of works, he reintroduces the low angle portrait view with local Moroccan backgrounds, but now his subjects are more actively collaborative, and are outfitted in Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and camouflage robes and funky red and white leather shoes. In other images, he takes even more control over the clothing of his subjects, crafting full suits and outfits out of brightly patterned fabrics, cropping his portraits down to just legs and lower bodies. For backdrops, Hajjaj adds in more layers of patterned mats and tapestries, or goes back into the streets, posing his sitters in front of branded boutiques like Chanel and Dior, or taking advantage of cast shadows or commercial logos to add more contrast and bounce to his compositions. And his frames have been amplified too, the scavenged rubber frames now painted in a range of primary colors and supported by patterned woven mats, and the painted wooden frames now made with small niches to hold tea tins, canned vegetables, and other brightly colored grocery store items. As all of these component details are pushed to extremes, the end product artworks get increasingly joyful and effusive, and their presence on the wall becomes more prominent.

Like all of Hajjaj’s exhibitions, this show includes colored walls and various Moroccan-style lounge and gathering areas populated with benches made from plastic boxes and upholstered cushions. Here, the central lounge hosts a video, made in 2011 just before France banned the wearing of full-face veils in public areas. In it, a woman in a polka dotted robe and veil cruises through Paris on a scooter, putting up wheatpaste posters of Hajjaj’s veiled models all over the city. She passes under the Eiffel Tower, stops at a cafe, and sweeps through various famous buildings, parks, and neighborhoods, her stylish look standing out and drawing attention. In a certain way, the video is a straightforward summary of Hajjaj’s artistic worldview – there is celebratory joy to be found in contemporary Moroccan style, and old stereotypes and exoticized fears can be broken down if people can be exposed to its contagious energy.

While this installation of Hajjaj’s works could have benefitted from more explanatory wall texts and a more obvious chronology of how the projects built on each other, the experiential installation is certainly vibrant and likely delivers the kind of atmosphere the artist wanted. But behind the flashy visual entertainment to be found here, there is also a more serious exploration of how Hajjaj’s work has developed over the past two decades. It’s a different kind of museum retrospective to be sure, but one that still delivers on educating viewers on the arc of an exciting contemporary photographer’s career.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Hassan Hajjaj is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York (here), where a show of his work was recently on view (reviewed here). Hajjaj’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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